With Jesus in the Desert
Fr. Cantalamessa's First Lenten Homily
Every year Lent begins with the account of Jesus going into the desert for forty days. In this introductory meditation we seek to discover what Jesus did during this time, and what themes are present in the evangelical account, to apply them to our life.
“The Spirit led Jesus into the desert”
The first theme is that of the desert. Jesus had just received the messianic investiture in the Jordan to take the good news to the poor, to heal afflicted hearts, to preach the Kingdom (cf. Luke 4:18 f). However, he is not in a hurry to do any of these things. On the contrary, obeying an impulse of the Holy Spirit, he goes into the desert where he stays for forty days. The desert in question is the desert of Judah, which extends from the walls of Jerusalem to Jericho, in the valley of the Jordan. Tradition identifies the place as Mount Quarentyne overlooking the Jordan valley.
In history there have been groups of men and women who have chosen to imitate Jesus and withdraw into the desert. In the East, beginning with Saint Anthony Abbot, they withdrew into the deserts of Egypt or Palestine. In the West, where there were no sand deserts, they withdrew into solitary places, remote mountains and valleys. However, the invitation to follow Jesus in the desert is not addressed only to monks and hermits. In a different way, it is addressed to all. Monks and hermits chose a space of desert, we have to choose at least a time of desert.
Lent is the occasion that the Church offers to everyone, indistinctly, to live a time of desert without thus having to abandon daily activities. Saint Augustine made this famous appeal:
“Re-enter your heart! Where do you want to go, far from yourself? Re-enter from your wandering which has led you outside the way; return to the Lord. He is quick. First re-enter into your heart, you who have become a stranger to yourself, because of your wandering outside: you do not know yourself, and seek him who has created you! Return, return to your heart, detach yourself from your body …. Re-enter into your heart: there examine him whom you perceived as God, because the image of God is there, Christ dwells in man’s interior.
To re-enter into one’s heart! But, what is represented by the word heart, of which there is so often talk in the Bible and in human language? Outside the ambit of human physiology, where it is but a vital organ of the body, the heart is the most profound metaphysical place of a person, the innermost being of every man, where each one lives his being a person, namely his subsisting in himself, in relation to God, from whom he has his origin and in whom he finds his purpose, to other men and to the whole of creation. In ordinary language the heart also designates the essential part of reality. “To go to the heart of the problem” means to go to the essential part of it, on which all the other parts of the problem depend.
Thus, the heart indicates the spiritual place, where one can contemplate the person in his most profound and true reality, without veils and without pausing on externals. Every person is judged by their heart, by what he bears within himself, which is the source of his goodness and his wickedness. To know the heart of a person means to have penetrated the intimate sanctuary of his personality, by which that person is known for what he really is and is worth.
To return to the heart means, therefore, to return to what is most personal and interior to us. Unfortunately, interiority is a value in crisis. Some causes of this crisis are old and inherent to our nature itself. Our “composition,” that is, our being constituted of flesh and spirit, inclines us toward the external, the visible, the multiplicity. Like the universe, after the initial explosion (the famous Big Bang), we are also in a phase of expansion and of moving away from the center. We are perennially “going out” through those five doors or windows which are our senses.
Saint Teresa of Avila wrote a work titled The Interior Castle, which is certainly one of the most mature fruits of the Christian doctrine of interiority. However there is, alas, also an “exterior castle” and today we see that it is possible to be shut-in also in this castle. Shut outside of home, incapable of returning. Prisoners of externals! How many of us must make our own the bitter observation that Augustine made in regard to his life before his conversion: “Late have I loved Thee, beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved Thee! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong – I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you those things which would have no being were they not in you.”
What is done outside is exposed to the almost inevitable danger of hypocrisy. The look of other persons has the power to deflect our intention, like certain magnetic fields deflect the waves. Our action loses its authenticity and its recompense. Appearance prevails over being. Because of this, Jesus invites to fasting and almsgiving in a hidden way and to pray to the Father “in secret” (cf. Matthew 6:1-4).
Inwardness is the way to an authentic life. There is so much talk today of authenticity and it is made the criterion of success or lack thereof in life. However, where is authenticity for a Christian? When is it that a person is truly himself? Only when he has God as his measure. “There is so much talk – writes the philosopher Kierkegaard – of wasted lives. However, wasted only is the life of a man who never realized that a God exists and that he, his very self, stands before this God.”
Persons consecrated to the service of God are the ones who above all are in need of a return to interiority. In an address given to Superiors of a contemplative religious Order, Paul VI said:
“Today we are in a world which seems to be gripped by a fever that infiltrates itself even in the sanctuary and in solitude. Noise and din have invaded almost everything. Persons are no longer able to be recollected. They are prey of a thousand distractions, they habitually dissipate their energies behind the different forms of modern culture. Newspapers, magazines, books invade the intimacy of our homes and of our hearts. It is more difficult to find the opportunity for the recollection in which the soul is able to be fully occupied in God.”
However, let us try to see what we can do concretely, to rediscover and preserve the habit of inwardness. Moses was a very active man. But we read that he had a portable tent built and at every stage of the exodus, he fixed the tent outside the camp and regularly entered it to consult the Lord. There, the Lord spoke with Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
However, we cannot always do this. We cannot always withdraw into a chapel or a solitary place to renew our contact with God. Therefore, Saint Francis of Assisi suggested another device closer at hand. Sending his friars on the roads of the world, he said: We always have a hermitage with us wherever we go and every time we so wish we can, as hermits, re-enter in this hermitage. “Brother body is the hermitage and the soul is the hermit that dwells within to pray to God and to meditate.” It is like having a desert “in the house,” in which one can withdraw in thought at every moment, even while walking on the street. We conclude this first part of our meditation listening, as addressed to us, the exhortation that Saint Anselm of Aosta addresses to the reader in one of his famous works:
“Come now, miserable mortal, flee for a brief time from your occupations, leave for a while your tumultuous thoughts. Move away at this moment from your grave anxieties and put aside your exhausting activities. Attend to God and repose in him. Enter into the depth of your soul, exclude everything, except God and what helps you seek him and, having closed the door, say to God: I seek your face. Your face I seek, Lord.”
Fasting accepted by God
The second great theme present in the account of Jesus in the desert is fasting. “After having fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry” (Matthew 4:1). What does it mean for us today to imitate Jesus’ fasting? Once understood by the word fasting, was a limit of one’s intake of food and drink and to abstain from meat. This fasting from food still keeps its vitality and is highly recommended, when, of course, its motivation is religious and not only hygienic and aesthetic, but it is not the only kind of fasting or the most necessary.
Today the most necessary and meaningful form of fasting is called sobriety. To willingly deprive oneself from little and great comforts, of what is useless, and sometimes also damaging to one’s health. This fasting is solidarity with the poverty of so many. Who does not remember Isaiah’s words that the liturgy speaks to us at the beginning of every Lent?
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
To share your bread with the hungry,
And bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Such fasting is also a protest against a consumerist mentality. In a world, which has made of superfluous and useless comfort one of the ends of one’s activity, to renounce the superfluous, to be able to do without something, to stop oneself from taking recourse to the most comfortable solution, from choosing the easiest thing, the object of greater luxury -- to live, in sum with sobriety, is more effective than imposing on oneself artificial penances. It is, moreover, justice towards the generations that will follow ours that must not be reduced to live from the ashes of what we consumed and wasted. Sobriety is also an ecological value of respect for creation.
More necessary than fasting from food today is fasting from images. We live in a civilization of images; we have become devourers of images. Through television, internet, the press, advertising, we let a flood of images enter us. Many of them are unhealthy, they engender violence and malice, they do nothing other than incite the worst instincts we bear within us. They are made expressly to seduce. However, perhaps the worst thing is that they give a false and unreal idea of life, with all the consequences that derive from that in the subsequent impact with reality, especially for young people. They pretend unwittingly that life offers all that advertising presents.
If we do not create a filter, a barricade, we quickly reduce our imagination and our spirit to a rubbish dump. The evil images do not die on reaching us but ferment. They are transformed into impulses to imitate, they condition our freedom horribly. Feuerback, a materialist philosopher, said: “Man is what he eats”; today, perhaps we should say: “man is what he sees.”
Another of these alternative fasts which we can do during Lent is that of evil words. Saint Paul recommends: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
Evil words are not only bad language; they are also cutting, negative words that systematically bring to light a brother’s weak side, words that sow discord and suspicions. In the life of a family or a community, such words have the power to shut everyone in himself, to freeze, creating bitterness and resentment. They literally “mortify,” that is, they give death. Saint James said that the tongue is full of mortal poison; with it we can bless or curse God, resurrect a brother or kill him (cf. James 3:1-12). A word can do more evil than a fist.
Reported in Matthew’s Gospel is a word of Jesus that made the readers of all times of the Gospel tremble: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render an account for every careless word they utter” (Matthew 12:36). Jesus certainly does not intend to condemn every useless word, in the sense of those not “strictly necessary.” Taken in the passive sense, the term argon (a = without, ergon = work) used in the Gospel indicates an unfounded word, hence calumny; taken in the active sense, it means an un-founding word, a word which produces nothing and does not even serve for necessary relaxation. Saint Paul recommended to his disciple Timothy: “Avoid such godless chatter, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (2 Timothy 2:16), a recommendation that Pope Francis has repeated to us more than once.
The useless word (argon) is the contrary of the word of God, which is described in fact, by contrast, as energes, (1 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 4:12), that is, effective, creative, full of energy and useful for everything. In this sense, what men will have to render account for in the day of judgment is, in the first place, the empty word, without faith and without anointing, pronounced by one who should instead pronounce the words of God which are “spirit and life,” especially at the moment in which he exercises the ministry of the Word.
Tempted by Satan
We pass to the third element of the evangelical narrative on which we wish to reflect: Jesus’ fight against the devil, the temptations. First of all a question: does the devil exist? That is, does the word devil truly indicate some personal reality gifted with intelligence and will, or is it simply a symbol, a way of speaking to indicate the sum of moral evil of the world, the collective unconscious, the collective alienation and so on?
The main proof of the existence of the devil in the Gospels is not in numerous episodes of deliverance of the possessed, because in interpreting these facts we must take into account ancient beliefs about the origin and nature of certain sicknesses. The proof is Jesus who was tempted in the desert by the devil. The proof is also the many Saints who fought in life with the prince of darkness. They are not “Don Quixotes” who fought against windmills. On the contrary, they were very concrete men of very healthy psychology. Saint Francis of Assisi confided once to a companion: “If the friars knew how many and what tribulations I receive from the devil, there would not be one who would not weep for me.”
If so many find it absurd to believe in the devil it is because they base themselves on books, they spend their life in libraries or at the desk, whereas the devil is not interested in books but in persons, especially, in fact, in the Saints. What can one know of Satan if one has never had to do with the reality of Satan, but only with his idea, that is, with the cultural, religious, ethnological traditions about Satan? They usually address this argument with great certainty and superiority, writing everything off as “Medieval obscurantism.” But it is a false assurance, as one who boasts that he is not afraid of a lion, adducing as proof the fact that he has seen a lion so many times depicted in photographs and has never been scared.
It is altogether normal and coherent that one who does not believe in God does not believe in the devil. It would be downright tragic if one who does not believe in God believed in the devil! Yet, if we think about it well, it is what happens in our society. The devil, Satanism and other connected phenomena are of great topicality today. Our technological and industrialized world is replete with magicians, city sorcerers, occultism, spiritualism, horoscope reciters, vendors of witchcraft, of amulets, as well as even true and proper Satanists. Chased out the door, the devil has re-entered by the window. That is, chased out of the faith, he has re-entered with superstition.
The most important thing that the Christian faith can tell us is not, however, that the devil exists, but that Christ has conquered the devil. For Christians, Christ and the devil are not two equal and contrary princes, as in certain dualistic religions. Jesus is the only Lord; Satan is only a creature “gone bad.” If he has been granted power over men, it is because men have the possibility to freely make a choice and also so that they “are kept from being too elated” (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7), believing themselves self-sufficient and without need of a redeemer. “Old Satan is mad,” says a Negro spiritual. He “shot his ball at me ... He missed my soul and caught my sins!”
With Christ we have nothing to fear. Nothing and no one can do us harm, if we ourselves do not allow it. After the coming of Christ, said an ancient Father of the Church, Satan is like a tethered dog: he can bark and fling himself as much as he wants but, if we do not approach him, he cannot bite. Jesus freed himself from Satan in the desert to free us from Satan!
The Gospels speak to us of three temptations: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread”; “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down”; “All these things I will give you if, prostrating yourself, you adore me.” They all have one common purpose: to divert Jesus from his mission, to distract him from the purpose for which he came on earth; to replace the Father’s plan with a different one. In Baptism, the Father had indicated to Christ the way of the obedient Servant who saves with humility and suffering. Satan proposes to him the way of glory and triumph, the way that everyone then expected of the Messiah.
Today also, the whole effort of the devil is to divert man from the purpose for which he is in the world, which is to know, love and serve God in this life to enjoy him later in the next; to distract him. But Satan is astute; he does not appear as a person with horns and the smell of sulfur. It would be too easy to recognize him. He makes use of good things leading them to excess, absolutizing them and making them idols. Money is a good thing, as is pleasure, sex, eating, drinking. However, if they become the most important thing in life, they are no longer means but become destructive for the soul and often also for the body.
A particularly related example to the topic is amusement, distraction. Play is a noble dimension of the human being; God himself commanded rest. The evil is to make of amusement the purpose of life, to live the week waiting for Saturday night or the trip to the stadium on Sunday, not to mention other pastimes that are rather less innocent. In this case amusement changes sign and, instead of serving human growth and alleviating stress and exhaustion, it makes them grow.
A liturgical hymn of Lent exhorts to use more sparingly, at this time, “words, food, drink, sleep and amusements.” This is a time to rediscover why we have come to the world, where we come from, where we are going, what route we are following. Otherwise what can happen to us is what happened to the Titanic or, closer to our time and in space, to the Costa Concordia.
Why Jesus went into the desert
I have tried to bring to light the teachings and the examples that come to us from Jesus for this time of Lent, but I must say that I have omitted up to now to speak about the most important of all. Why did Jesus, after his Baptism, go into the desert? To be tempted by Satan? No, he did not give that the least thought. No one goes on purpose in search of temptations and he himself has taught us to pray so as not to be led into temptation. The temptations were an initiative of the devil, permitted by the Father, for the glory of his Son and as teaching for us.
Did he go into the desert to fast? Yes, but not mainly for this reason. He went there to pray! Jesus always withdrew into desert places to pray to his Father. He went there to be attuned, as man, with the divine will, to deepen the mission that the voice of the Father, in his Baptism, had made him perceive: the mission of the obedient Servant called to redeem the world with suffering and humiliation. He went there, in sum, to pray, to be in intimacy with his Father. And this is also the main purpose of our Lent. He went into the desert for the same reason for which, according to Luke, he would later go to Mount Tabor, namely, to pray (Luke 9:28).
One does not go into the desert to leave something – the noise, the world, occupations -- one goes there above all to find something, rather Someone. One does not go alone to find oneself, to put oneself in contact with one’s inner self, as in so many forms of non-Christian meditation. To be alone with oneself can mean to find oneself with the worst of company. The believer goes into the desert, goes down into his own heart, to renew his contact with God, because he knows that “Truth dwells in the interior man.”
It is the secret of happiness and of peace in this life. What does one in love desire more than to be alone, in intimacy, with the person loved? God is in love with us and he wants us to be in love with him. Speaking of his people as of a bride, God says: “I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:16). We know what the effect is of being in love: all things and all other persons withdraw, are placed in the background. There is a presence that fills everything and renders all the rest “secondary.” It does not isolate from others, rather it renders one more attentive and disposed to others. Oh if we men and women of the Church would discover how close to us, within our reach, is the happiness and the peace that we seek in this world!
Jesus awaits us in the desert: let us not leave him alone during this time.
1. Saint Augustine, In Ioh. Ev., 18, 10 (CCL 36, p. 186).
2. Saint Augustine, Confessions, X, 27.
3. S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, II, in Works, edited by C. Fabro, Florence 1972, p. 663.
4. Saint Anselm, Proslogion, 1, (Opera Omnia, 1, Edinburgh 1946, p. 97).
5. Cf. Speculum perfectionis, 99 (FF1798).
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